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Ray Bradbury, Jaron Lanier, and “The Digital Flattening of Expression”

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (Simon & Schuster), first published 1953

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (Simon & Schuster), first published 1953

Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget (Knopf), 2010

Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget (Knopf), 2010

I had never read Ray Bradbury until I started reading Fahrenheit 451 to my son Lukas last year. About halfway through the 1953 novel there is a conversation between Faber, a retired English professor, and Montag, a “fireman” whose profession now entails the burning of books. Faber is speaking:

“Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies.”

In reading this passage I was struck by its empathy with themes in Jaron Lanier’s 2010 manifesto You Are Not a Gadget. Comparing an artifact with its digital representation, Lanier writes, “A real painting is a bottomless mystery, like any other real thing…. It has texture, odor, and a sense of presence and history.” A digital image or “digital fragment,” on the other hand, isn’t really “distinct from any other; they can be morphed and mashed up.” Like mediocre writing, it turns out that the digital copy has no pores.

Faber continues: “So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless. We are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of growing on good rain and black loam.”

The culture that Faber describes is creatively bankrupt because it is disconnected from authentic experience; from life itself. Six decades later, aspects of Bradbury’s dystopian future feel disturbingly present tense. Lanier echoes the image of flowers living on flowers in You Are Not a Gadget when he describes contemporary culture as “effectively eating its own seed stock.” Lanier believes that “Authorship—the very idea of the individual point of view—is not a priority of the new ideology.” Our remix culture, which thrives by cannibalizing older, original works while simultaneously obscuring its sources, is responsible for “the digital flattening of expression into a global mush.”

As visual artists, what can we do to resist this flattening of culture? For one thing, we can continue to create artifacts—physical objects with texture and pores. Original, analog artifacts with quality: sketches, drawings, photographs, print designs, and paintings.

Published in Emigre in 2004, Randy Nakamura’s essay “The Grand Unified Theory of Nothing” posits that, “Yes, design is about analysis and problem-solving, but its fundamental impact on the world (for better or worse) is in the artifacts and form it produces. This is the only way ideas survive in design. To denigrate form and artifact making in design is to destroy its essence and reduce it to a generic role of think tank or consultant.”

As Nakamura notes, “The design artifacts you leave behind will be your ultimate legacy.” Our artifacts will also serve to enrich the larger culture. Go to it!